Jazz From Detroit

Friday, August 23, 2019

Peter Vacher reviews Mark Stryker’s insightful book on the history of the Detroit music scene

Before Motown by Lars Bjorn with Jim Gallert, which appeared in 2001 under the same imprint looked at the Motor City’s jazz story from 1920 to 1960.   Detroit journalist Stryker now moves the narrative forward while paying due tribute to the earlier volume. He brings us the individual stories of a multiplicity of established stars from what he calls the city’s Golden Age 1940-60 – that’s Milt Jackson, Sheila Jordan, Donald Byrd, Curtis Fuller, Joe Henderson et al, devoting a set of chapters, rightly, to the Jones Brothers, Hank, Elvin and Thad, before focusing on trumpeter Marcus Belgrave and his stable of protégés. He then winds up with present-day stars like James Carter and Regina Carter, and finishes with a number of 21st century newcomers.

There is a degree of overlap with the earlier book but that’s OK, for Stryker is a lucid commentator whose continuing ardour for Detroit’s jazz heritage is evident on every page. He’s at pains to point out that Detroit’s municipal decline, racial strife, depopulation and financial difficulties may have gained the headlines but “jazz in the city soldiered on”, often aided by the self-determination efforts of the musicians themselves. He’s also keen to suggest that his city’s fortunes may now be in recovery.

In a series of opening chapters, Stryker sets out the timeline for jazz in Detroit; ably describing a level of activity that was fostered by the influx of African-American workers and their families as they came north attracted by jobs aplenty in the automotive industry. He argues strongly that Detroit’s jazz apogee came with the hard bop period as the city’s enlightened educational system produced player after player of consequence. As the Detroit-born pianist Kenn Cox put it, “Jazz wouldn’t be the same without Detroit.” Stryker concurs, saying, “Detroit has been indispensable to the history of modern and contemporary jazz. From the mid-20th century until the present day, the city has been one of the primary feeders of talent to the national [US] scene.” Tommy Flanagan’s explanation for this musical largesse is simpler: “The music was everywhere in Detroit.”   

The meat of the book is in the many individual profiles which make up the bulk of the text. Stryker is part biographer and part critic; never the hagiographer, he highlights what he knows of these individuals from personal observation, finding new things to say, and assesses their recordings, both good and bad. He understands their musical aspirations and achievements and has a handy way with a phrase, viz describing pianist-guru Barry Harris as a “swinging Socrates” or summing up Flanagan’s pianistic touch as “each note like a pearl wrapped in silk” and recalls the “hot-oil sizzle” of Philly Joe Jones’s drums. I’m inclined to compare Stryker the stylist with Whitney Balliett in his ability to both describe the individual and their musical characteristics. He knows the value of formative experience and the role of teachers but above all, he portrays the collective commitment to the music itself that shines out from all players he appraises. Comprehensive, musically literate, striking in its depth, and essential.  Good illustrations and references.

Jazz From Detroit is published by University of Michigan Press HB $39.95

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